CHAPTER ONE: 1977
Tommy Cooper had been in love with Beth Riley for as long as he could remember—at least since Beth’s seventh birthday party when he’d accidentally hit her in the face with a snowball, knocking one of her molars out and making her cry. He owned those tears and he’d made a promise to himself right then and there that he was never, ever going to make her cry again.
And later, after he’d apologized for the millionth time, she’d forgiven him and presented him with the tooth, figuring he could use the tooth fairy money way more than she could. Besides, she added, the tooth had been loose anyways.
His pride was hurt a little bit; it was no secret that Mr. Riley was doing much better financially than Mr. Cooper who had problems keeping a job. The dining room table in the Riley house held a mountain of brightly-wrapped birthday gifts to prove it. The realization that Beth was aware of this disparity made him feel small.
But the tooth was a part of her and she’d given it to him. He’d taken it home later that day and wrapped it in a hanky, stowing it in his top dresser drawer. He carefully weighed the option of placing it under his pillow that evening and finding a dime underneath in the morning. There were lots of things he’d like to have and that dime would buy one of them. Ten pieces of penny candy--Mr. Adams, who owned the little market on the corner downtown, never charged tax when selling to children (as he said, ‘The goddamned Great State of New York will get their hands on ‘em soon enough…’).
Or maybe some bubblegum with a baseball card inside. Baseball was okay, he guessed, and he could sure use a few more cards to put in his bicycle spokes. His best friend Nicky Freeman had lots of them and they made the coolest sound when he rode by. But Beth had a way of making him laugh no matter how badly he felt sometimes.
In the end, he’d kept the tooth. And in the ten years that had passed since then, he hadn’t regretted that decision even for a moment.
Beth was late today. They’d agreed to meet in the cemetery beside her house at four p.m. and he’d walked the two miles up the road in the August heat, arriving at what he figured was a few minutes early. That gave him just enough time to hide around the west side of the large sepulcher, mid-way through the grounds. From this vantage point he could peek through the shrubbery and around the corner, and get a clear view of the path beyond. This was a prank he pulled on Beth on a regular basis and he marveled at the fact that she fell for it every time.
The cemetery was Beth’s habit, not his. He didn’t understand her fascination with the dearly departed but that was Beth for you. That dark head of hers was filled with the craziest notions! He wasn’t much of a believer himself, though here in the shadows, behind the cold, stone tomb, it was beginning to feel creepy.
No sooner did this thought enter his head when the nerve-endings on the back of his neck began to prickle. He suddenly knew he was being watched. Hot sweat turned to icy cold on his back, and chill-bumps ran a marathon up his spine. Instinct told him to run but his legs disagreed, turning to jelly where he crouched. Whatever it was, it was watching him from behind. He could feel the sentient consciousness of it like a cool hand caressing his back.
Tommy listened hard, reaching for the hint of a sound from the tree-line thirty yards behind him. Somewhere off in the distance a gentle breeze kicked up the lonely tinkle of wind chimes. He was no longer sure from which direction the threat came and he searched the manicured lawn for any sign of movement. To his left, row upon row of neatly scribed, granite headstones. To his right, only the mottled gray stone of the crypt. Behind him—
Suddenly the air filled with the whomp-whomp of hundreds of wings as a flock of crows took to the air, rocketing out of the trees.
“Gak!” he gasped, nearly wetting himself in the second it took for realization to set in. “Shit! You scared the hell outta me!”
Breathing again, he watched while the cawing birds made for the forest on the other side of the cemetery. And then chuckling to himself, he began walking back towards the path. He’d had enough of this scary crap for the day. He’d get Beth next time.
Chuff came a noise… from behind him again. Chuff-chuff! It was the sound of ragged breathing—the breathless sound of something monstrously large and in charge running at top speed straight for him—something closing the distance fast.
Chuff-chuff, chuff-chuff, chuff-chuff…chuff!
All reason left him as his legs took over and he ran. He felt the claws hit his back first and then fist-sized paws as he was knocked to the ground and pinned there. Every muscle in his body constricted at once, steeling him for whatever was to come.
That was Beth’s voice.
“Topo Gigio! Let him up!” She was laughing now, goddamnit!
“Gah!” he hollered, rolling over and pushing the rambunctious dog aside. “Only you would name a St. Bernard after a mouse!”
Topo crouched as if making ready to lunge again. His tail wagged wildly back and forth.
“Don’t. You. Dare.” Tommy said, pointing one thin finger at the amused animal. “Damnit, Beth, don’t you own a leash, for God’s sake?”
“Sit, Topo, sit.” Beth commanded dropping lightly to the ground beside Tommy.
Topo responded by running excited circles around them, stopping to bark and pounce along the route.
They laughed about it later. That was after they’d torn off their jeans and tees and made love on the grass beside the swimming hole. Topo belonged to Beth and that was good enough for Tommy. If she loved Topo Gigio, then he loved him too.
Tommy was in a high humor an hour later when he stepped into the kitchen at home, letting the screen door slam behind him.
“Whoa…that smells good! How ya feelin’ today, Ma?’
It was good to see her up and around. Laura Cooper had recently been diagnosed with Lymphoma, a form of cancer of the lymphatic cells. And whatever that was (Tommy didn’t understand all the medical mumbo-jumbo), it was aggressive. She was tired a lot now, and because of the chemotherapy, she spent long hours in her room, sicking up the chemical cocktail into a trash bin. Tommy stayed close to home those days, feeding her ice chips and dabbing her head with a cool cloth. She was growing thin and looked haggard, but today she was up and that was a good thing.
“Oh, I feel a lot better today. How was your day, Honey?”
Tommy immediately went to her and placed a gentle kiss on her cheek.
“Awww, c’mon, Tommy. Give your momma a hug. You’re not gonna break me, ya know.”
Laughing, Tommy picked her up and spun her around. Her arms around his neck felt good—felt like home.
“You’re getting’ fat, Ma,” he joked. “Must be all those ice chips I’ve been feedin’ ya.”
If Beth was the love of Tommy’s life, Laura Cooper was the light. Besides, the kitchen smelled like ham and that was his favorite. His mother had a way in the kitchen.
Too late, he noticed John Cooper standing in the doorway, glaring, the requisite can of Colt 45 in his hand.
“Where ya been, boy? I coulda used your help in the shop today.”
John wasn’t Tommy’s biological father. His real father had been killed in a car accident when he was just a baby. He had only the vaguest memory of a fair-haired man with laughing eyes presenting his mother with a gift the Christmas before the accident. Laura had looked happy then, but her name had been Siefert, not Cooper.
John Cooper had arrived on the scene roughly three years later and had adopted Tommy in an effort to erase the past. Genetics will out though, and Tommy’s long, blonde, curly hair and blue eyes were a daily reminder and a stark contrast to John’s own dark hair and brown eyes.
Lately, John had been doing mechanical work out of his garage. Nothing major, really, just simple things like changing the oil and tuning up engines. He hadn’t the equipment to do the big stuff. And since most of the men in town did those things for themselves his clients were limited to the big wigs, bankers and insurance salesman and such, who had no mechanical ability whatsoever and only came to him because he was a good bit less expensive than Smith’s Garage on Riverview. John generally thought of them as idiots (‘any man who can’t change his own god-damned oil…’) but then again, these were the same men who wouldn’t think of inviting John Cooper to play in their golf league or attend their secretive meetings down at the Moose lodge.
Tommy dreamed of becoming a musician. He’d been saving up for a guitar and planned on teaching himself to play as soon as he had enough money. John had other plans for him. He insisted that one day Tommy would ‘take over the business’ and toward that end he’d been teaching him. But no matter how well Tommy thought he was doing, the look on his adoptive father’s face said the same old thing—you didn’t do enough, Tommy, didn’t do it right, didn’t do it when I said I wanted it done.
“I’m sorry, Dad. I’ll stay home tomorrow and finish up Mr. Barnes’ Chevy--”
John Cooper cut him off with a grunt. He was a man of few words, and the grunt covered a whole lot of them. Mostly, Tommy didn’t want to hear them anyway. Gently, he set his mother back on her feet.
“Why don’t you go wash up for dinner, Tommy? You can work all this out later,” Laura said, smoothing her simple housedress.
She was wearing that nervous smile now—the one that made her look older and well…smaller somehow. Tommy took her cue and attempted to squeeze through the kitchen doorway past his father who wasn’t budging.
Another grunt. As their eyes locked, Tommy turned sideways and squeezed through anyway though John Cooper made sure that their shoulders bumped along the way.
Minutes later the Cooper family had gathered around the table. The clock on the wall said 6:15, but of course it was set to fifteen minutes fast. Dinner was at six o’clock sharp in the Cooper household. Six o’clock, not six-ten or six-fifteen. The ticking of the clock was the loudest sound in the room as John Cooper carved the ham. Time is money, it said.
“As long as you’re feeling better tonight, I’m going to need you to write out some bills, Laura,” John said, spearing a slice of ham and passing the platter. “We got doctor bills piling up.”
“I’ll get to it right after dinner,” she replied, passing the ham to Tommy’s half-sister Julie, who was thirteen. Julie had the proper color hair and eyes-dark, like John’s.
“You’re not eating?” John said, noticing that Laura hadn’t taken any ham.
“I’ll have a little something. Maybe just some bread and butter. I’m not real hungry tonight.”
Another grunt. This one said that maybe if she’d eat, she’d get well and stop causing all this trouble. Tommy had the ham now and helped himself to a slice.
“Bob Jackson must owe me pretty near fifty bucks by now,”
The mashed potatoes made the rounds next. Tick-tock the clock said—times a wastin’! And then John made to spoon the peas onto his plate. A look of disgust passed over his face as he glared into the bowl and then turned those steely eyes toward his wife.
“Christ, Laura! There’s hair in the peas! Now how am I supposed to eat that?”
Laura hadn’t time to answer him yet when he reached over and gave a quick tug on her short hair coming away with an entire lock of the stuff. He looked as though he was going to be ill now and that didn’t make him happy at all. No one moved. No one breathed.
Grimacing, John Cooper tossed the lock of hair to the floor.
“Christ,” he repeated. “Now your hair’s falling out.”
Laura slid back her chair and made to get up.
“I’ll make some more,” she said, her cheeks red with embarrassment. “It’ll just take a few minutes.”
“Pass the peas,” Tommy said. His voice was tight, his blue eyes locked on John’s brown ones.
“Well, you’ll have to wait now, won’t you?” John answered coolly.
“Pass me the goddamned peas!”
Tommy didn’t wait for John to pass the bowl, but instead reached over and took it. He piled an extra scoop on his plate making sure he got the peas with the hair in them. That was his mother’s hair and he’d take it. He began shoveling peas, hair and all, into his mouth, glaring back at John as he swallowed. If Laura Cooper had anyplace to run to, she’d have run then. Instead she sat back down.
John Cooper took another swig of his beer and grunted. You make me sick, Tommy, with your wrong-colored hair and eyes. You make me god-awful sick!
They finished the meal in silence while the damnable clock ticked on.